May 2014: The Month in Reviews

It was a rich and varied month of reading–everything from a long history of genocide to a reflective book on a one sentence prayer. I read primary source accounts of the beginning of the Atomic age and a collection of essays on the challenging theological question of “holy war” in the Bible. There was a book on 19th century efforts to reconcile faith and science, and the cutting edge 21st century science of genomics and its challenges to faith and ethics. I explored a full length memoir of growing up in southern Saskatchewan, a full-length biography of the “little woman that started this great war [the Civil War]”, and a delightful collection of short stories by a Bengali Indian writer. So, here is the month in reviews, with each of the links taking you to the full review of the book:

1. God and the Natural World: Religion and Science in Antebellum America, by Walter H. Conser, Jr. The title summarizes the book in many ways, exploring how 19th century theologians grappled, even before Darwin, with discoveries that called into question interpretations of the Bible.

2. The Manhatten Project: The Birth of the Atomic Bomb in the Words of Its Creators, Eyewitnesses, and Historians, ed. by Cynthia C. Kelly. The immediacy of these accounts combined with the skillful editing that fashions these into a seamless narrative makes this a compelling read of the beginning of the nuclear age.

3. A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, by Samantha Power.  From the story of Rafael Lemkin who gave us the word “genocide” to the tragedy of Rwanda, and our first real steps to intervene in the Balkans, Power tells a story of America’s studied avoidance for the most part, of using its power to prevent genocide, even while piously saving “never again” after the Holocaust.

god and natural worldmanhatten projectproblem from hellexcellence in preaching4. Excellence in Preaching: Studying the Craft of Leading Preachers, by Simon Vibert. I appreciated both the concept and conclusions of this book but felt it was marred by its exclusive use of white, Anglo male models. Is excellence in preaching really limited to this demographic? I think not.

5. Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Spiritual Life, by Nancy Koester. Stowe did far more than just write Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She was a pioneer among women authors, the daughter and spouse of New School Calvinist pastors who moved away from these theological roots while not moving away from Christ, and contributed far more to the abolition of slavery than simply her novel. An outstanding biography.

6. Degrees of Inequality: How the Politics of Higher Education Sabotaged the American Dream, by Suzanne Mettler. Mettler argues that in the field of higher education as in the wider society, our education policies and our failure to maintain policies offering affordable access to all, are creating a new educated elite while excluding many from the lower classes of society.

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7. Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life, by J. Craig Venter. Venter was the leader of one of two teams (Francis Collins led the other) who sequenced the human genome. In this book, Venter talks about what he and other genetic researchers have been doing since, particularly in developing our capacities to synthesize DNA and the ways they’ve applied this research.

8. Holy War in the Bible, ed. by Heath A. Thomas, Jeremy Evans, and Paul Copan.  This book represents the proceedings from a conference on this issue and is organized around essays representing six different approaches to the question of how we deal with war in the Bible. Probably the most thorough-going treatment on this issue I’ve read.

9. The Jesus Prayer, by John Michael Talbot. This little booklet reflects word by word on the Jesus prayer (Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner). A book at once theologically rich, devotionally nurturing, and ecumenically written.

jesus prayerwolf willowinterpreter of maladies

10. Wolf Willow, by Wallace Stegner. This is Stegner’s memoir of the settlement of south Saskatchewan in the area of the Cypress Hills and his own boyhood. He punctuates this with a riveting, fictional account of the struggle of cowboys to survive the winter of 1906, that devastated the herds and nearly took their lives.

11. Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri. This Pulitzer Prize winning collection of short stories by Bengali Indian Lahiri explores the intersection of traditional Bengali values with modernity, particularly in negotiating the immigrant experience. A number of the stories are set in Boston, where Lahiri was educated.

David Brooks, in a recent op-ed in The New York Times made this observation about what books can and cannot do in our lives:

I suppose at the end of these bookish columns, I should tell you what I think books can’t do. They can’t carve your convictions about the world. Only life can do that — only relationships, struggle, love, play and work. Books can give you vocabularies and frameworks to help you understand and decide, but life provides exactly the education you need.

That’s what I felt these books do in my life. It’s my hope that one or more might do the same for you!


Review: A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide

a problem from hell

A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power

Samantha Power gives a compelling account of the twentieth century history of genocide and American responses (largely non-responses) to this horrendous evil. She covers a sobering reality with a journalists skill of both careful documentation and rendering a riveting narrative.


Samantha Power

She begins with the life of Rafael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer of Jewish descent who became fascinated at the crimes against humanity wrought by the Turks against Armenians in World War 1. Fleeing Poland when he recognizes the same patterns in the Third Reich, he suffered the loss of most of his family and became a lifelong advocate against these crimes, to which he gave the term “genocide”. His crowning achievement was to participate in the drafting of the UN conventions against genocide.

And so we come to the US response. Lemkin died in 1959 without seeing the US ratify these conventions, which would have done so much to strengthen the world’s response to genocide. We see the bloody regime of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the war-weary non-response of the US. Ultimately, our former enemies, the Vietnamese brought down this bloody regime and exposed their crimes. Only in 1985, after Reagan’s disastrous visit to Bitburg did he push for the passage of the genocide conventions, although in a qualified form to protect the US against genocide charges.

Sadly, even the Holocaust, even Cambodia are insufficient to arouse the conscience of the US. Power documents a studied avoidance by our political leaders, that discounts evidence of genocide, that equivocates on calling these crimes “genocide”, that fails to use even US diplomatic and economic influence against genocide, and is unwilling to risk American lives to save the lives of the thousands who died in the successive genocides she chronicles in Kurdish Iraq, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Kosovo. By and large, Power chalks this up to a determination that American interests were not directly involved, resulting in the moral equivocations to justify inaction.

The latter part of the book chronicles what can happen when the US does act, as it finally did in Kosovo. Goaded by political opposition, the Clinton administration authorized US involvement with NATO bombings and subsequent peace-keeping efforts that brought an end to the Milosevic regime’s efforts to exterminate or “cleanse” the land of Albanians in Kosovo. And subsequently it supported the seizure of Milosevic and many other war criminals to be tried for genocide at the Hague. Very belatedly Rafael Lemkin’s dream is realized.

The book ends in 2002, just after 9/11. Since then we have witnessed genocide in the South Sudan, and a current ominous situation in the Central African Republic. Samantha Power is now US ambassador to the United Nations and a senior official in the Obama administration. It will be interesting to see whether Power can change from the inside the culture of inaction she decried from the outside.

Who is Raphael Lemkin?

If “Raphael Lemkin” was a Jeopardy answer, the question might be, “who coined the word “genocide”? I’ve been reading Samantha Powers’ A Problem From Hell and the first part of the book is a fascinating account of the life and struggle of this Jewish lawyer from Poland to awaken the world’s conscience to systematic efforts to exterminate groups of human beings and to prevent further occurrences of such events.

His earliest exposure to this issue came with his study of Turkish efforts to eliminate the Armenian population in Turkey. In 1933, as an international lawyer, he made a presentation on The Crime of Barbarity at a League of Nations conference in Madrid. Nothing was done, and little did he, or the other delegates realize that they would soon witness one of the greatest examples of “barbarity” in human history–one Lemkin barely escaped and which took the lives of his parents and several other family members when the Nazis invaded eastern Poland.  All told, he lost 49 relatives to the Holocaust.


In the US, he became a tireless crusader to raise awareness of the Holocaust and create international structures to prevent similar occurrences in the future. Along the way, he recognized that there was no single word that adequately captured the particular phenomenon of seeking to extermination of a particular people that was universally adequate. Lemkin, who knew fourteen languages, and was something of a philologist recognized the power of words and arrived at the term “genocide” combining the Greek genos (family, tribe, race) with the Latin -cide (killing).

He succeeded in enshrining this word in the UN Genocide Convention of 1948 and saw it ratified by over 20 countries (but not the US) before his death in 1959.

Today is Holocaust Remembrance Day and so it seems fitting on this day to remember Raphael Lemkin, who did so much to fight genocide, and who lost so much to the Holocaust.

[This post was written in 2014. In 2015 Holocaust Remembrance Day was April 16. A calendar of Holocaust Remembrance Days for subsequent years may be found here.]


When Will They Ever Learn?

Twenty years ago, the Rwandan genocide began when a plane was shot down near Kigali in which Hutu President Habyarimana was flying with the the President of Burundi. Over the next 100 days Hutus massacred approximately 800,000 Tutsis (estimates vary) while the world watched. People sheltering in churches were butchered. Christians of one tribe killed Christians of another.


Today it is the Central African Republic that teeters on the verge of genocide. Anti-balaka Christian militias have killed over 2,000 Muslims according to some reports and displaced over 400,000. Regional peacekeepers from Chad have offered some protection for the Muslim minority. UN forces may arrive by September to take over for African Union troops. Ban Ki-moon, UN General secretary, says the international community must, “do more and act more quickly” or the country is in danger of repeating the Rwandan genocides.

Former President Bill Clinton, in a CNBC interview, believes that had the U.S. acted sooner at least 300,000 lives might have been saved. He cites Rwanda as the reason he created his foundation, to promote understanding and respect among diverse peoples in the world and peaceful conflict resolution.

Today, the NY Times Magazine printed “Portraits of Reconciliation” which is a collection of photographs and narratives about reconciliation and healing between perpetrators and victims in the Rwandan Tragedy. It is a powerful, painful, yet hope-filled narrative of how those who once hated have learn to confess transgressions, extend forgiveness and slowly restore the fabric of a deeply torn country.

Will we learn as a world community from these things? The tragedy today is that, unlike in the Clinton era which did intervene in Kosovo to present a massacre, the US has squandered its resources in two protracted conflicts and cannot afford to respond. Other nations in the world somehow must cobble together a response. Will the world community act soon enough? Will September be soon enough? Will the 12,000 troops they hope to send be enough? Can we hope for reconciliation across religious lines when there are still sadly bitter Christian-Muslim conflicts in many parts of the world? How many more Rwandas must there be? Will we remember?